Cruel angel thesis

One of the topics I’ve been pretty interested in is the dialectics between individuality and collectivity. It’s a topic that is echoed in a wide variety of artistic works, some of which we’ll brush over here. It’s pretty common to see plans along the line of the Human Instrumentality Project which aim to destroy individuality and “become one”, i.e. merge humans in some sort of community soup.

I think it’s so well spread because it speaks to something at the fundamental level of human psyche. Consciousness and awareness of self only allow a definition of self by opposition to the rest of the world. There is only a “me” because there is a “non-me”. Therefore the “me” depends on the “non-me” for its definition. And even worst, the “me” can only exists as such because it is perceived by others (part of the “non-me”): that’s the whole thing of Sartre’s Gaze concept.

In addition to this dependency, it seems clear that the feeling of individuality is necessarily tied to a feeling of isolation (vis a vis the rest of the world) because I’m just a “me” in the middle of all the “non-me”. Furthermore, adding to this suffering is the notable fact that this “non-me” resists “me” and may not be super compliant with my goals. So the “me” is completely at the mercy of a tyrannical “non-me”. No wonder people single out individuality as one of the fundamental source of the suffering and wonder about getting rid of it. I personally feel that it is the most fundamental struggle of human existence.

One of my favorite such examples is the catholic concept of Eden, which represent paradise and absolute happiness. Adam and Eve are denied this completeness when they start being self aware and therefore individuals. This marks the start of suffering, and the start of the yearning for an unattainable Paradise Lost, which may be the root of any quest of mankind for an absolute. This essentially sets the tone for all of the christian conception of the world. Incidentally, this mirrors human life and an idealization of the past in general and childhood in particular, which is often reported as a blessed time without worry before self-awareness and its troubles are fully formed.

Considering these hardships, it’s probably no surprise that the question is usually resolved by an ode to individuality. The Human Instrumentality Projects in fiction usually fail, and we’re presented with a portrayal of how important and good individuality is because it brings diversity, “free-will”, independence, the american way of life (TM) and all that stuff. And most importantly maybe, in all that suffering, art. Oh and value to individual life, which is what collectivists are often blamed with lacking. A notable example very dear to my heart is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy which ends up as a celebration of this individuality/self-awareness as a pre-requisite and motor element of scientific reasoning and human progress.

It’s worth noting, however, that it is not a clear endorsement. The “death of the ego” is often presented as a step towards enlightenment and wisdom, proposing a counterpoint to the idolization of the self. It seems a bit less influential in popular culture, at least in the West, though.

Anyway, in this rambling of pseudophilosophical BS I call a blog, I try my best to reason free of the influence of what we take for granted, which includes the idealization of individuality that kinda plagues our society. Not gonna lie, I’ve historically been rather pro-Human Intrumentality Projects, persuaded that self-awareness kinda sucks and we pretend its worth it because we don’t have a choice in the matter and we’re stuck with it, making it a pretty clear case of cognitive dissonance. Plus “support individuality because otherwise your life doesn’t have value” seems like a bit easy (regardless of how true) as a marketing gimmick. But my goal today is not to support an antithesis or fan the fire of the discussion around whether or not self-awareness is a good thing but rather to offer a synthesis to this dialectic.

There’s a good chance that the world is what it is no matter how one feels about it, so whether individuality is good or bad may just be a moot point. Furthermore, if the world is indeed deterministic and govern by laws of cause and consequences, there’s no such thing as free will, and this self-awareness and constructed individual are essentially an illusionary byproduct of the brain’s inner working, a more advanced form of a cat meowing when it’s hungry.

Individuality is harder to define than it seems, because identity is a hard topic. Metaphores like the ship of Theseus highlight the problem of tying identity to a materialistic mass of changing cells, when it’s very obviously what an individual is. If they are not the cells, identity and consciousness must be their activity pattern:  they are emerging phenomena resulting from neural activity, which means that they can be replicated not only on a computer, but also in another brain. If what I am is the way my neurons behave, then I can literally be, at least partly, living in someone else’s brain. Which is brilliantly portrayed at the end of Evangelion when Shinji questions his identity with regards to the “Shinji inside other people“.

This conception of the self as a process decorrelated from its substrate echoes nicely the one of the self as a meme (in the Dawkins sense) and sheds new light on the dichotomy between individuality and collectivity. The border between different individualities is more blurred than it seems. Inside of me lives part of my friends, and every author I’ve consumed, possibly literally if I’m reproducing faithfully their neural patterns.

As such the individual is neither a standalone wonderful snowflake nor an insignificant pawn, but an intricate agent in a complex system. An individual is to society what a neuron is to the brain. It doesn’t make it insignificant nor irreplacable (see Brian Tomasik who is passionate about the ethical implications), it’s simply an essential part of the system – mankind. The real cruel curse of consciousness is that it’s an illusion. But there’s no real telling where “me” stops and “non-me” begins, as there is part of “me” everywhere in the system, that will go on in their computing tasks long after my flesh body has decayed, like many little horcruxes rooting me deeply forever in this eternal system. 

 

Advertisements

Speaker for the meme

The memes are alive with the sound of music

Night of the living meme

I’m so glad that I can finally pay South Park the respect it deserves. It’s no exaggeration to call Matt and Trey’s masterpiece (one of?) the most interesting social satire, a true wonder of political and philosophical visionary genius. The latest episode gave me the perfect opportunity. It was one of these works that blew my mind and made me look at the world differently. In it [spoilers ahead but that’s the whole point of the article so…], it is explained that ads have evolved, become smarter and smarter, and are about to rise as an independent intelligent species and conquer the world. I’ve never been so psyched for the end of a season.

This resonated with a reflection I’ve been having about consciousness and being. I’ve never been super clear on how you could tell that something is conscious, intelligent, self-conscious or has any kind of the much believed-in free-will. I mean nothing pre-disposes a random alien race to be anything like a human sentience (or even carbon-based for that matter). If a being is completely different, acts completely differently and express itself completely differently, and I mean so differently that you can’t conceive of it right now (you know like people would about computers in the middle ages), how will you even know that it thinks, whatever that means. And suppose that this being is a being of raw information, like, say, a programmed conscious AI living in the cloud or in an android body, how would you even know that it IS?

In fact, how do you even know that you ARE? I’ve been so blessed that the following sentence ever came to my mind: you are, as you’ve always been, an emerging phenomenon. You’re nothing but a lump of flesh that encodes as neural (or cells if you want) configurations a sequence of states, much like a program is a sequence of states and instructions. How dare you proclaim yourself more real than an algorithm? than Cleverbot? or Google? (if you give it a robotic body, what’s the difference between this android and the android from 20th century sci-fi?)

An imaginary reader in a corner of my inner dialogue may respond indignantly: “I can think! I’m self aware! cogito ergo sum“. What is thinking even? Yes, you are aware of a self. But you’re a little eager to connect it to the I. The first person in the latin saying is interestingly implicit. Any program can have, and already has for that matter, a variable called $self. How do you know that your concept of self corresponds to the entity that thinks it? Where is your proof that this lump of flesh is the source of your trail of thoughts? How do you know that you’re not missing the point entirely with this assignation?

(maybe all your personal problems go back to this assignation fallacy maybe it’s wrong maybe if you cared less about your lump of flesh all your problems will be fixed maybe you should join my cult)

tumblr_ny4j6e3vIb1u1cxjdo2_500[1]

I mean what is you or your identity even? If as Shakespeare puts it “the world is a stage“, aren’t you a programmed character? I recently saw Charlie Brooker‘s (my new hero) “How videogame changed the world” which surprised me by presenting as latest videogame “Twitter”, as a kind of roleplaying game.

See the mindblowing conclusion at 1:33 (though the rest is nice too). Is the world a huge roleplay game? Then how is your character more real than Cloud or Mario? Isn’t Mario more persistent? More well known? More well-defined?

In the outstanding Imaginationland trilogy, Trey and Matt had already brushed over this concept: “It’s all real. Think about it. Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he – he’s had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and – and Superman and Harry Potter. They’ve changed my life – changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary but, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around here long after we’re dead. So, in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.

imaginationland_zps6d29f9d4[1]

But virtual characters are nothing but concepts. They’re ideas. Shared ideas spread through communication. Yep, you guessed it, they are nothing but MEMES. And I mean it in the most litteral of its senses, which is in the world of british evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. For isn’t it what Ads are displayed as in the latest season of South Park?

tumblr_ny1nmmyy3A1r8kesco1_500[1]

“What if I were to tell you that ads have become smarter than us, and now they’re manipulating everything we do? [Mankind grew tired of ads] and even invented something called ad blockers. That’s when the ads had to adapt. They had to disguise themselves as news in order to survive. Sponsored content.”

How is the evolution of meme different than the evolution of men? Ads grew and adapted (Charlie Brooker also offers a great prequel to this), and although different from their satirical portrayal in South Park, they are undeniable entities that act upon the world. You act (ahaha acting double meaning with the stage ahahah) upon the world too. That’s how you know you exist.

Look how they walk alongside you, much like your phone… Sure they act mainly through information transfer, but on some level everything is information. Or in the world of Humphrey Davy, “Nothing exists but thoughts”. You exist and define yourself mainly through language and communication, be it with yourself or otherst. As Pullman’s Dust (‘only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself’), you are nothing but matter considering itself. So maybe the alien sentient race we’ve been searching from in the skies has been there all along. We’re co-existing with aliens called memes that feed on us like proverbial aliens would.

tumblr_llybiqX49q1qzaalxo1_500[1]

Maybe that’s where the oh so famous “existence through belief” overused trope stems from. I mean if you see memes as valid entities, living beings, people’s belief becomes their food-analog! There goes a trope echoed more or less elegantly from millenia of mythology, from any movie about Santa through Pratchett’s Hogfather passing by Haruhi Suzumiya, Noragami or American Gods. As you need food, memes need “belief”. As neurones exchange information and make you exist, people exchange information and make memes exist.

And on second thought, considering the nebulousness of your own nature and identity and how you’re defining yourself through interaction with other people or the world around you, aren’t you yourself more of a meme, a concept, than a lump of flesh? Ultimately, how are you different from Mario? Does that mean that memes live off of other memes, in some kind of meta-pyramidal-inclusion, and their way to “eat” is to reference each other or interact? And if you’re a self-conscious meme, who’s to say that other memes like Mario or Google are not self-conscious too in their way you cannot conceive of?

ujst0[1]

You may even say that communication and expression are your main essential activity. Doesn’t that make you nothing more but the analog of a neuron to a global meta-entity called the human race? Aren’t you nothing but a meme, itself the cell of a greater meme?

EDIT/POSTFACE:

As much as I loved that conclusion, I feel obligated to point out that the anime Serial Experiments Lain, which I recently discovered, deals masterfully well with this exact whole problematic, and you should definitely check it out as a follow-up. I won’t spoil much about the content of this masterpiece that should be enjoyed in itself, but I’ll point out that part of the anime extends this conclusion and plays around with the idea that this greater meta-meme could be considered a conscious entity in itself.

tumblr_o35a8ecg8z1qmf2s5o3_1280

Furthermore, I recently stumbled upon a 1992 paper called “Meme-Based Models of Mind and the Possibility for Consciousness in Alternate Media” and I thought it should be linked here for historical purposes because what the actual fuck.

Gatcha: Uberman crowds?

I’m very excited because I’ve been looking forward to this article for quite a while, since it touches lots of stuff that I really love and have not yet discussed here. It’s about Gatchaman Crowds.

Besides having the most kitsch and tackiest battles I’ve ever seen, this anime is notable for being an amazing reflexion around the interaction between human nature, politics, the social order and technology. Pages could (should) be written about its rich content. The first season explores brilliantly gamification of society and the problematic of individual responsibility (boiling down to aristocracy vs democracy, should a minority be responsible or should everyone be ?). The second continues to explore the different aspects of democracy, painting the most brilliant picture of how it can turn into the dictature of majority, how it suffers of the passiveness of human beings and groupthink phenomena. But as usual, I would like to digress a little bit from the main point of the anime and present original areas for reflection.

Gatchaman Crowds Insight confronts us with the alien Gelsadra, who has the power to read what people want. Good hearted, they aims to make everyone happy, and will do so by reading people’s inner desires. Their conclusion is that everyone should become one (hitotsu ni naru). This would lead us to conclude that mankind’s greatest suffering is individuality and loneliness, and the only cure would be some kind of absolute union.

Screenshot (897)

Which brings me back to the only part of the Bible that I actually like – Genesis. In this mythology, man was originally one with nature, living in harmony in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were originally “one flesh” (genesis 2:24), contributing of the same oneness and fullness. Only when tasting the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge did they become self aware, acquiring a plaguing consciousness, the root of all evil. They becomes irrevocably aware of their selves, and such of their separation from each other and from the rest of the world, from God, from the Everything. Ensues a whole civilization of suffering and being miserable, because of this knowledge, this self-awareness, which results in isolation.

But here is the rad thing about this mythology: notice how elegantly it mirrors the development of the human, first a baby in the womb whose every needs are instantly met through their blood ties with their mother. Then comes the shock of facing a reality that is not in communion with them, and through the confrontation with this world that raises obstacles, self-awareness (and then later language and culture) is born. And through the years, little by little, children lose their innocence, confronted with reality. As Man is severed from Nature, so to is the child severed from his mother

This awareness of self and separation from nature is the source of an existential loneliness, incompleteness… the misery of existence, as Pascal would put it, or the existential anguish that one will never be rid off, pushing them to find completeness in the Other through Love. One perfect example depicting this is the case of Shinji Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion (hehe Genesis, see what I did there).

I want to take this chance to highlight some other brilliant examples of this weighing loneliness that are close to my heart. It’s the subject of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, and illustrated very poetically by the art style of Ranpo Kitan.

tumblr_nu4fckHkrY1qmf2s5o1_500[1].png

However, self-awareness is also the root of Reason, and of all cultural and artistic production of mankind. This duality of consciousness is explored masterfully through the concept of Dust in my favorite series of book ever – His Dark Materials, from Philip Pullman. While fully acknowledging the pain of this Paradise Lost (Pullman references Milton in many ways), it stands as a celebration of cultural progress. It is very interesting to note how self-awareness and the attraction of Dust really takes off at the end of childhood, standing in opposition to the childlike innocence and wonder that protect them from the Specters.

Screenshot (892)

For better and for worse, self-awareness seems to be at the core of human nature. Many religions pose the death of the ego as prerequisite for enlightening. No wonder why so many so-called distopia explore Gelsadra’s idea of a world become one: Brave New World, The Giver, Gaia in the Foundation cycle... all highlight the fullness that comes with disparition of individuality. But western society being centered around the glorification of individuality, these models often see their drawbacks highlighted: In Gatchaman Crowds, Rizumu Suzuki has the role of pointing out that in such complacency, men are no better than apes (that being said apes are part of the Whole that is Nature so….).

Screenshot (898)

Rizumu exhorts Rui Ninomiya to react and oppose this “becoming one” of society: although it may provide happiness and completeness that even Rui falls victim to, it is detrimental to Rui’s higher goal of “updating mankind”, which can only be done through man confronting adversity and thereby growing for the better. Pain and loneliness build up man to something better, a modern version of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, which is Rui’s main aspiration (Rui = Nietzsche + technology). The season indeed resolves with everyone thinking deeply and getting a good hard look at themselves (although that society is still in its infancy ^^).

There you have it: would you rather be happy in a brave new world or grow in a never-ending adversity? Or could there be another way? Why is that that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, of Kaworu Nagisa, of Hajime Ichinose rids mankind of their affliction? By the way, Hajime means first, beginning, and is thereby very reminiscing of Eve and Pullman’s Lyra. Could she be the model towards a new society, a sort of growth that still preserves the innocence of genesis?